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San Francisco Opera 2018: Richard Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen

June 20, 2018

Okay, this has nothing to do with wine though as it is San Francisco, a trip to Napa Valley would be in order and indeed I did drop by Harlan Estate. But that deserves another post. My primary concern was to attend the complete cycle of Richard Wagner’s epic masterpiece Der Ring des Nibelungen, my only second Ring cycle apart from a 2004 South Australian Opera production. Since the time of Wieland Wagner (the composer’s grandson) at Bayreuth in the 1960s, most productions have done away with literal translations of the work. Gone are the breastplates, armour, helmut, papier-mâché snakes and dragons. Symbolism now plays a great deal in most staging, whether by means of lighting or props or costumes, or a combination of various.


For this revival of a production that had previously been presented by the San Francisco Opera back in 2011, director Francesca Zambello would have you believe that the CEO sitting at the top of the next office tower looking down on you is a god. That’s right, this Ring is set in our time with plenty of steel and concrete. It is somewhat disconcerting to first encounter the gods in Das Rheingold dressed in business suits and popping champagne whilst preparing to ascend into Valhalla.  It is all part of de-mystfying the gods, for they do increasingly fall prey to all the human vices of greed, power, lust, jealousy and sheer vanity as the story progresses, eventually losing their own power to change destiny, becoming no different from humans. If that is still too much to fathom, just think of Superman as Clark Kent.


Das Rheingold: the gods with the giants

Nevertheless, things actually work out pretty well in this staging, marked by outstanding production values, great attention to detail, superb acting, singing and stage direction although some incongruity starts to creep in when it comes to Siegfried. A large lighted grid on the stage floor serves well to convey mood, ambience and various symbolic tones (powerful yellow for the Rheingold, intense crimson for fire, passion and hatred, and green for Siegfried’s forest) whilst facilitating Erda to rise from the earth and Alberich to disappear conveniently while he transforms into the gigantic serpent.  It was good to note that important physical symbols to the story such as Wotan’s spear, Siegfried’s Notung and the cursed ring have not been adulterated, while the use of gold linen to symbolise the Rheingold hoard as well as Tarnhelm is a masterstroke. The magnificent contribution by the full-sized San Francisco Opera orchestra (not the San Francisco Symphony, utilising two harps rather than the specified six) under Donald Runnicles cannot be over-emphasised, an ensemble clearly held in high regard and affection, judging from the enthusiastic applause and cheers preceding each Act throughout the cycle. The acoustical qualities of the War Memorial Hall are quite exceptional as well, carrying the voices well above the orchestra with excellent clarity and balance. For all its modernisation, the San Francisco Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is one that stays firmly rooted to tradition as it makes its triumphant return. All pictures of the staging here are taken from the San Francisco Opera Ring media webpage.


Das Rheingold: the subterranean Nibelheim

DAS RHEINGOLD. Performance of 12 June. This Prologue to Wagner’s epic is superbly staged. The opera orchestra begins reassuringly with the horns on good form in the long and difficult introduction while, on stage, restless large waves in ceaseless slow-motion are projected with an almost 3D effect onto the front screen. The watery effect is well carried onto stage when the curtain lifts with plenty of vapour in the air. A transluscent grid on the stage floor facilitates changing lighting patterns, most helpful in conveying the Rheingold’s brilliance. The Nibelheim subterranean scene is truly convincing in the old world style where Alberich (played to perfection by the German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann) sings and acts with plenty of conviction and power, reaching a thrilling climax as he utters the terrible curse on the Ring. The chorus of children play their part very well as Alberich’s slaves. The latter’s transformation into a gigantic serpent is achieved through the use of rear projection, but the imagery appeared very real and menacing. Equally good was the way he disappeared from stage in an instant, becoming a toad. Rich in velvety tone with remarkable depth and power of delivery, Struckmann in this role is practically on par with the legendary Gustav Neidlinger. Almost stealing the show as well was tenor Stefan Margita as Loge whose craftiness shone through in every line and gesture, especially at the end where he declines Wotan’s invitation to join the gods in Valhalla. American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was excellent as Wotan, singing with great authority and precision though the voice is just slightly constricted in range with a touch of dryness. I liked as well that the two giants Fafner (Raymond Aceto) and Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) really appear appropriately huge on stage, truly dwarfing everyone else. They must be walking on stilts. It is this sort of attention to detail that makes this production so enjoyable. At the end, the gods ascend into Valhalla via a gangway which was a bit of a letdown (surely it isn’t too difficult to transform it into a rainbow bridge?) with everyone seemingly going off on a cruise. Nevertheless, with all the major and minor roles (Ronnita Miller most memorable as the mysterious Erda) played to near-perfection, this Das Rheingold will take some beating.


Das Rheingold: ascension into Valhalla

DIE WALKÜRE. Performance of 13 June. Save for Act 1, the setting is otherwise contemporary but it works very well. Combined with great staging and acting throughout with everyone on top vocal form, this is truly the most outstanding production of Walküre I’ve seen live (others were Adelaide 2004, La Scala 2010, Salzburg 2017, Bayreuth 2018 and Singapore 2020). Again the almost 3D front and rear projection is used to great effect. Siegmund’s (the outstanding Brandon Jovanovich) frantic dash through the jungle is unmistakable and his exhaustion upon arriving at Hunding’s hut is most convincing, unlike Peter Seiffert’s stumbling effort (overweight and too old) up the side of the stage at Salzburg in 2017. The interior of Hunding’s dwelling is most rustic though the World Ash Tree has been reduced to a limpid one-dimensional cardboard piece. The Salzburg tree is, by far, still the best but here I can see the director’s point of view: the tree actually plays no significant role apart from harbouring Notung. Hunding (Raymond Aceto who sang Fafner too) carries a hunting rifle but prefers to fight Siegmund using a cutlass – a gentlemanly gesture, in tune with his offer of hospitality to the stricken Siegmund perhaps? Whatever it is, it conveniently avoids straying away from what the audience expects of Siegmund’s Notung. The twins (Sieglinde brilliantly acted and sung by Karita Mattilda) sing superbly though Siegmund’s desperate cry of “Wälse!! Wälse!!” could do with greater piercing intensity. The acting throughout was most natural and Hunding leashing Siegmund before retiring to bed added further realism to Wagner’s soundtrack commentary. Hunding appeared to have been handed carte blanche to grope the ample Sieglinde as Siegmund delivered his great monologue. All the important nuances specified in Wagner’s libretto were observed: the faint recognition between the twins as they made initial eye contact, Hunding’s quizzical look when he first encounters a stranger in his house, the glint of Notung (very well done…how did the sword handle appear from the tree trunk?). The live flame in the fireplace did its symbolic work well, growing in intensity as the twins experienced their initial mutual attraction though, curiously, it died completely as they careened towards their passionate climax.


Die Walküre: Siegmund, Sieglinde and the World Ash Tree inside Hunding’s hut

The projections made it clear that Wotan’s Valhalla is an office building towering above the clouds looking down on a distant Manhattan-like skyline. Sure enough, Wotan, dressed in business suit, is at his office desk using his telephone. And reading the newspaper. Similarly, Fricka (mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton) appears very wifely and expensive-looking while Brünnhilde looks set for an afternoon shopping trip. What are we to make of this? I can only think of Superman in his guise as Clark Kent, that the immortal gods walk amongst us in our daily lives. Or is it implied that the gods are no different from humans in their behaviour. Probably both. Again, the relative simplicity of the stage setting works well without having to resort to Salzburg’s ambiguous ring motif with Wotan scribbling in chalk and the chair-carrying oxen. Wotan’s great monologue is delivered with conviction by Greer Grimsley though I feel Vitalij Kowaljow, the leading Wotan of the past decade, finds deeper range and expression in the same role (heard at La Scala 2010 and Salzburg 2017). In a real masterstroke, the fight between Siegmund and Hunding takes place in a dark litter-strewn forsaken area underneath a highway flyover, watched with quiet disdain by Fricka high above the stage. Astonishingly, two real dogs dashed across the stage as Hunding and his henchmen approached, adding further realism. The swordplay is more extended than most productions and Notung is shattered convincingly by Wotan from a distance, not unlike a Jedi wielding the invisible Force. Siegmund’s death throes is superbly portrayed, reaching a powerful emotional climax as the dying hero recognises that it is his own father who has allowed him to be slain while Wotan’s anguish at his own haplessness is absolutely palpable. Thereafter though, why does Wotan need to use both hands to break Hunding’s neck? Why not use the Force?


Brünnhilde in Die Walküre


Die Walküre: Act 3, Ride Of The Valkyries

The Valkyries swoop down onto stage from parachutes at the start of Act 3 in full paratrooper gear. Undoubtedly a wonderful spectacle but, surely, these warrior goddesses do not require parachutes?? The action takes place on an industrial ramp and, quite innovatively, the Valkyries collect photo portraits of dead heroes instead of physically dragging dead bodies about as seen in the 1976 Patrice Chereau Bayreuth production. The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin, an eleventh hour substitute for the indisposed Evelyn Herlitzius as Brünnhilde, appeared to be conserving her voice, consistently outsung by Sieglinde in their duets and delivering her lines in a more slivery fashion with a slightly smaller tone but she was to come into her own in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The magic fire surrounding the perimeter of the ramp at the end was real and magnificent. All in all, this is a Walküre to die for, particularly in the all-important Acts 1 and 2.


Die Walküre: Wotan surrounding Brünnhilde with magic fire

SIEGFRIED. Performance of 15 June. Act 1 opens in a waste land where Mime (tenor David Cangelosi) lives in a ramshackle caravan, forging swords in the open. This works well and, again, attention is paid to Wagner’s staging for Siegfried actually enters with a very lively black bear! The youthful-looking American tenor Daniel Brenna is utterly fitting as the brash idiotic fearless Siegfried. The sword-forging scene is absolutely magnificent as Siegfried goes through the technical steps of sword-forging whilst singing at the top of his lungs and still managing to hammer out the intricate dotted rhythm right on time, aided by great special effects that make the entire sword-forging highly believable. This scene alone would have been worth the ticket price. Thereafter, things began to unravel. The much-feared dragon turns out to be a ridiculous mechanical machine driven by Fafner, not unlike Dr No’s “dragon” in the Bond movie. Siegfried stabs his Notung into some opening in the machine and then the fatally wounded Fafner falls out of the door. And there is no Forest Bird. Rather, a young woman, like some kind of muse, takes over in a voice (Stacey Tappan, who also doubles as one of the Valkyries) that is too big and assertive for the role. This sort of artistic freedom is fine with me but why not adjust or update the libretto as well to fit what we see on stage? Since Wagner’s time, audiences have accepted that there ain’t gonna be any horse on stage so it is perfectly fine to see Grane being mentioned metaphorically. In Act 3, the industrial ramp where Brünnhilde lies has become appropriately dilapidated though the magic fire is still raging and supposedly has been raging for 20 years (the approximate time frame since the end of Walküre): why hasn’t anyone called the Fire Department? And when Siegfried and Büunnhilde wax lyrical about each other supposedly by the stream beside the latter’s rock, it is painful to see the singers having to imagine there is such a thing at the ramp. Since the start, Siegfried has always suffered a bit of ignominy, being squeezed between the ever-popular Walküre and the very-happening Götterdämmerung. While this production fares well (Act 1 is thoroughly superb), this opera will always run into interpretative problems with contemporary staging.

Magic Fire

Siegfried: Mime’s home

GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG. Performance of 17 June. The three Norns in Act 1 are excellent; again the dynamic 3D projection of a complex electrical circuit supports the scene superbly. Ms Theorin as Brünnhilde begins this very long opera conservatively but she goes from strength to strength, still sustaining her vocals very well without any strain by the time she reached the Immolation scene. Siegfried was also in top form in a role that requires far more stage movement and acting detail than Brünnhilde in addition to a lot of singing. The staging is well conceived and highly imaginative: the Rhinemaidens lament by the river bank (presumably, since there was plenty of vapour and river bed junk) though Gunther’s HQ appears to be set in an industrial plant, somewhat Blofeld-like as there were plenty of armed henchmen that appeared in the double-wedding scene. It was also easy for non-Wagnerites to follow the plot’s intricate mid-section that involves Siegfried’s disguise as Gunther (American baritone Brian Mulligan who also doubled as Donner) and his inadvertent betrayal of Brünnhilde as every twist and turn is portrayed in exquisite detail, closely observing Wagner’s stage directions. Hagen’s tone (Andrea Silvestrelli) was a little too gruff at the start but it grew well into the role and his dream scene with Alberich is superbly conveyed (the front projection again important). Curiously, Hagen’s spear looked suspiciously like the same one Wotan wielded in Das Rheingold (the god switched to an all-steel spear in Walküre and Siegfried). The Immolation scene veered more on elegance rather than sheer outright power, the Immolation pyre appearing somewhat subdued compared with the magnificent magic fire of Walkure. While the staging became more abstract towards the end, the wonderful acting and singing carried the opera through such that one didn’t really feel the longueurs within, bringing a genuinely outstanding cycle to a deeply satisfying conclusion. The San Francisco Opera has every right to be very proud of its distinguished achievement. I was glad I made the trip.


Götterdämmerung: double wedding scene


Curtain call. Die Walküre.

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